Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Sea Unicorn

I’ve got plenty of friends who think that my collection of animal skulls is pretty strange, but I’m equally perplexed by the thousands of people who collect unicorn figurines and related memorabilia.  I was stunned to do a Google search recently and find more than 27 million web pages related to unicorns, and thousands of unicorn items are for sale on eBay.  Clearly, unicorns are big business.
          But they’ve been big business before, too.  Although the unicorn myth was born a couple thousand years ago, it really got a boost in the Middle Ages when narwhal tusks were sold on the European market as unicorn horns.  It was believed that powdered unicorn horn – sometimes called alicorn – could cure epilepsy and numerous other diseases, and that if you drank from a cup made from a unicorn horn you could not be poisoned.
         As a result, for several centuries narwhal tusks were more valuable than gold.  Kaiser Karl V of Austria paid off his nation’s debt with two tusks, and in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth received a tusk that was valued the same as an entire castle.  The royal coronation throne of Denmark is made almost entirely of narwhal tusks, with Christian V becoming the first Danish king crowned in the chair in 1671.  My wife took this photo of the throne on a visit to Rosenberg Castle in Copenhagen last year.
          Eventually, of course, it was discovered that the tusks came from narwhals and not unicorns, but that just encouraged the myth rather than disproved it because it was believed then that all terrestrial animals had marine counterparts, so if a sea unicorn existed then certainly one existed on land, too.
          While I can’t imagine that many people still believe that unicorns are real today, you wouldn’t know it by their continuing popularity.

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